Yahoo’s new wunderkind: Another risky move by CEO Marissa Mayer


Nick D'Aloisio, aged 17, who developed the smartphone news app Summly, displays the app as he poses for a photograph at offices in central London March 26, 2013. (SUZANNE PLUNKETT/REUTERS)
Jena McGregor
Columnist March 27, 2013

The tech world is atwitter over the news Tuesday that Yahoo has reportedly paid tens of millions to acquire a company founded by a 17-year old. Yes, a 17-year old.

What makes the prodigy so interesting isn’t necessarily what he created (a news summary app called Summly) or what he’s achieved (his first several million before graduating from high school). Nick D’Aloisio is also a well-spoken Londoner with Ferris Bueller-like charm who some observers say Yahoo wanted more for his ability to attract other mobile developers than to create more apps himself. As a source told The Wall Street Journal’s Kara Swisher, “Nick will be a great person to put in front of the media and consumers with [Yahoo CEO Marissa] Mayer to make Yahoo seem like it is a place that loves both entrepreneurs and mobile experiences.”

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

Whether or not Swisher’s source is right, Summly does indeed appear to be an “acqui-hire,” in the parlance of Silicon Valley-an acquisition made chiefly for the talent behind it rather than the product it sells. In the case of Summly, for instance, Yahoo will be removing it from the App Store. The company is reportedly shutting down the app and incorporating its technology, which was created with the help of Silicon Valley R&D firm SRI International, into other Yahoo products.

Even if Yahoo is bringing D’Aloisio on board simply to help make the tech-company-in-turnaround appear young and hip to developers, managing the transition will bring its own set of challenges. The young entrepreneur may find it difficult to see his product shut down, no matter how much that was part of the deal. And how he will be managed is another question-he apparently plans to remain living with his parents in a southwest London suburb. (After the whole Yahoo telecommuting brouhaha, does he get to work from home?)

If D’Aloisio and the two other Summly employees Yahoo brought on get disbursed throughout the company to work on other mobile technology, the high price Mayer paid for their talent could lose its impact. As one Silicon Valley HR expert told me last fall, the value of high-priced “acqui-hires” can dwindle if “they don’t have the critical mass to influence the organization. The culture could overpower them, and that will most likely push them out the door.” Morever, if Yahoo is in fact bringing on a 17-year-old kid to be the face of its mobile strategy, what does that say to the mobile developers it already has? Silicon Valley may be a place stuffed with wunderkinds worth millions before they ever reach 30, but 17 could inspire a whole new level of envy.

One thing’s for sure: Marissa Mayer knows how to get the world talking, whether it’s about her controversial work-from-home ban, the length of her maternity leave or the acquisitions she makes. Now we’ll see how well she’s able to manage all these talent moves-especially the one involving such a high-profile 17-year-old kid.

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